We’re right around the corner from another Oscar night, and aside from the current boycott controversy—about Hollywood’s lack of diversity and its failure to recognize the minority filmmakers and actors who should be nominated—one thing that usually has people talking the Monday morning after (besides the sometimes curious fashion choices) are the upsets and surprises.
Without fail, every year, there are winners who come out of left field, surprising nominations, and the occasional unscripted moment when somebody’s brain shuts down as they hoist that Oscar statuette. And with that in mind, we here at Film Slate Magazine thought we should recognize the top ten surprises in Oscar history
10. 2003 – Adrien Brody wins Best Actor for his performance in “The Pianist.” In a field of Oscar heavyweights, Brody was decidedly the underdog. How’s this for competition? Each of the four actors Brody was nominated alongside had already won Oscars: Nicolas Cage (Best Actor, “Leaving Las Vegas”); Daniel Day-Lewis (Best Actor, “My Left Foot,” and would go on to win two more); Michael Caine (Best Supporting Actor in “Hannah and Her Sisters” and Best Actor for “Cider House Rules”); and Jack Nicholson (Best Actor for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Terms of Endearment,” and “As Good as it Gets”). Brody not only shocked the world by winning (Remember Nicholson’s look during the announcement?), he shocked Halle Berry with that kiss.
9. 1956 – Ernest Borgnine winning Best Actor over Frank Sinatra. Okay, which one sounds like the Oscar winning scenario to you? Portly butcher finds love despite his awkwardness and shyness around women (Borgnine in “Marty”), or former heroin-addicted degenerate wrestles with his demons and his relationship with his wife while his past gambling associations drag him down (Sinatra in “The Man with the Golden Arm”)? Apparently the Academy fell in love with the portly butcher (or just disliked Sinatra that much, it’s probably a toss-up), because “Marty” also won three other Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Delbert Mann), and Best Screenplay (Paddy Chayefsky). While Borgnine was solid, Sinatra was sublime.
8. 1993 – Marisa Tomei wins Best Supporting Actress for “My Cousin Vinny.” In the more than 20 years since her win, Tomei has been nominated for two more Oscars, and probably should have won for “The Wrestler.” But she had a couple of things going against her with “My Cousin Vinny.” First of all, the Academy doesn’t really know what to do with comedies, especially those of the small and quirky variety. And secondly, Tomei was a virtual unknown at the time, and up against several well-respected candidates in movies that seemed more Oscar’s speed (it was a good year for stuffiness: “Howards End” and “Enchanted April” come to mind).
7. 2006 – “Crash” wins Best Picture over “Brokeback Mountain.” “Crash” is a good movie, if a bit convoluted. And it did win two more Oscars: Best Screenplay (Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco) and Best Editing. But it was hard not to escape “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005, and most people were definitely expecting this daring movie and its take on a forbidden relationship between two cowboys to take home the Oscar gold.
6. 1986 – The absolute snubbing of “The Color Purple.” So if a movie gets 11 nominations, you’d expect at least one win, right? Even in a less glamorous category? No, it wasn’t to be for “The Color Purple.” Steven Spielberg didn’t even get nominated for Best Director that year.
5. 1977 – Beatrice Straight winning Best Supporting Actress for about five minutes’ worth of work. “Network” was nominated for 10 Oscars, and its cast was deservedly praised and well-represented, with Peter Finch winning Best Actor and Faye Dunaway taking home Best Actress. But Straight’s brief time on screen certainly makes her performance the shortest to ever win an Oscar. Not to mention she was also up against Jodie Foster, Lee Grant, Jane Alexander, and Piper Laurie.
4. 1992 – Jack Palance winning the Best Supporting Actor for “City Slickers.” Palance hadn’t been nominated since the mid-1950s, so just getting the nod was an honor and recognition for this colorful actor who had made his reputation playing mostly heavies throughout his career. Palance certainly played a heavy in “City Slickers,” albeit with a comedic twist. And of course, who can forget the actor, who was in his seventies by then, putting on that push-up display?
3. 1977 – “Rocky” winning Best Picture. This was a heavyweight (yes, yes, please excuse the pun) year for moviemaking. Nominated alongside “Rocky” were “Network,” “All the President’s Men,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Bound for Glory.” But “Rocky” delivered the knock-out punch (oh, they’re starting to come fast and furious now) against the more favored competition. “Rocky” was nominated for 10 Oscars, and John G. Avildsen won Best Director for helming the world’s favorite underdog story.
2. 1942 – “How Green Was My Valley” wins Best Picture over “Citizen Kane.” This may be a bigger surprise in retrospect than it was at the time, but honestly, how does “Citizen Kane,” which was nominated for nine Oscars, not win Best Picture? “Valley” was nominated for 10 Oscars, and it’s a perfectly fine film, but “Citizen Kane” is taught in every introductory film class in the world while “Valley” has faded into a pleasant, sepia-toned footnote. Rosebud indeed.
1. Martin Scorsese not winning for Best Director until “The Departed.” For the man who reinvented the gangster movie, gave us the harrowing black and white classic that was “Raging Bull,” and even pushed boundaries with “The Last Temptation of Christ,” winning for what was a fairly mediocre effort was definitely done with a big nudge and a wink. There’s nothing wrong with “The Departed,” but it’s fairly by the numbers. How Scorsese never won for “Goodfellas” (maybe even for that famous Copacabana tracking shot alone), “Casino,” or “Raging Bull” is a complete mystery. Hell, he should have even won for “Bringing out the Dead,” and he wasn’t even nominated that year. So while Scorsese did bring home the Oscar (his only one so far), even he has to know it was for the wrong movie.